Forces almost beyond control: Goliaths too strong for brave Davids

The Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman launched their 2017 report yesterday.

Forces almost beyond control: Goliaths too strong for brave Davids

The Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman launched their 2017 report yesterday.

At about the same time the international team investigating the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 over the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, announced that they have uncovered hard evidence that a Russian army missile system fired the missile that hit flight MH17.

The Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was attacked. All 298 people on board were killed.

Both reports raise a common and increasingly important theme — how can countries, especially small countries like ours, better protect themselves from malign, unwelcome outside influences? How can societies that aspire to protecting the rule of law and supporting the integrity of justice systems repel international or commercial interests that would subvert in their public life and their democratic process?

On the day that the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force those questions carry an increasing weight.

On a day that we vote on a proposal to change our Constitution after a campaign where hidden hands — from both sides of the argument — sought decisive influence through social media platforms it seems at best reckless not to confront these issues.

That these alarm bells rang again in the week Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was accused of being too powerful when he briefly met — and patronised — members of the European Parliament underlines the concerns raised by Press Council chairperson Seán Donlon, when he warned about the growing influence of social media: “It is essential that governments and international organisations such as the EU now address the disproportionate and unaccountable power of social media. There has to be an acceptance that responsibility goes with power. If the social media organisations do not themselves take action to ensure that they do not undermine democratic systems then governments will have to bring in supervisory and regulatory measures comparable to that which newspapers, magazines, advertising and broadcasters already experience.”

Mr Donlon is of course right but in a week when America once again dismissed the International Criminal Court, saying that Palestinian efforts to have the forum consider charges of war crimes against Israel as “counterproductive”, and in a world where Vladimir Putin’s government shrugs off accusations over the flight MH17 murders, it seems far easier to identify the problems than resolve them.

Syria’s brutal civil war, North Korea’s game of chicken over nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia’s — that medieval kingdom spent $69.4bn (€59.2bn) on “defence” last year — proxy war in Yemen and almost most of all, China’s determined expansionism, show how very difficult it is to change the trajectory of events by international censure or even boycott.

It may have ever been thus but today’s Goliaths have become so powerful, and so indifferent to the idea of being answerable to a collective of nations, or even constrained by one, that David’s slingshot seems increasingly inadequate.

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